Digital Tools as Critical Theory: Edu-factory to Digital Humanities (Abstract)

Abstract for my presentation, “Digital Tools as Critical Theory: Edu-factory to Digital Humanities” at the Accelerated Academy Symposium @ Michigan State University

Long paper is forthcoming.

“What once was the factory, is now the university.” This, among other hypotheses, served as a rallying cry and point of departure for the now defunct international Edu-factory Collective. Born online, networked in its organization, and relentless in its criticism of the university’s thorough neoliberalization, the collective’s work is now but a memory, archived on abandoned blogs and in a single edited volume taken from the collective’s listserv. Featuring writing from major figures in critical university studies (Randy Martin, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Aihwa Ong, and Christopher Newfield, to name a few), the collective’s hypothesis was equally reliant upon critical theory as it was digital technologies.

I recall the collective’s work in this proposal for two reasons. First, to liken the university to the factory is to better define the prospective character of neoliberalism’s relation to knowledge production. The claim is not that the university functions exactly as the factory did. It is a rhetorical maneuver meant to make exploitation manifest where knowledge is produced. Further, it is to argue that knowledge production, its commodification, and its technologies of dissemination play a specific role in conceptualizing resistance to neoliberal imperatives for education, namely: “to transform the field of tension” comprising out contemporary institutional state “into specific forms of resistance and the organization of escape routes” (1). Digital technologies were the substrate for more complex modes of relation for the collective here, including, but not limited to, open-source unionism, the undercommons, and a concept of the global autonomous university. 

The second reason I want to reanimate components of the collective’s central hypothesis is to place it in a new context: the rise and continued prominence of digital humanities. Digital Humanities’ rise and the Edu-factory’s fall are coincident. The political ideologies guiding both movements do not often overlap. Yet both movements see productive potential in the use and development of digital tools. Where the Edu-factory combined explicitly Marxist and anti-colonial ideologies in its fusion of digital tools and critical theory, DH’s political contours often favor intersectional approaches to computational methods. How the two interface, and further, why DH approaches are favored contemporarily, are questions that may lead to yet unseen prospects for reclaiming knowledge production writ large.

As a result, this paper aligns popular concepts from both DH and Edu-factory discourse through a comparison of keywords common to both: Collaboration / Collective, Inclusion / Differential Inclusion, Digital Commons / the common, Civility / Conflict. This archive of concepts will serve as the basis for thinking DH and Edu-factory political work in concert, and to prospect on the productive potential for political alignment, even where keywords elicit antagonism and radical difference.


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